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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Press ups stakes on Pankisi gorge
Russian and Georgian papers make no bones about the fact that the latest bitter exchange over the presence of what Russia sees as pro-Chechen militants in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge is all about war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum to his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze saying Moscow had a right to self-defence unless Tbilisi took steps to halt "bandit incursions".
"Shevardnadze is our Saddam," says the headline in the popular Izvestiya daily. The link with the theme of international terror is made forcefully throughout the article.
The paper points out that the matter was raised at a session of the Russian parliament by Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov. And that, at Mr Ivanov's insistence, the session was held behind closed doors.
Besides broader issues of financing the army the minister touched on "the struggle against international terrorism in the context of the Russo-Georgian conflict over the Pankisi Gorge", the paper says, quoting a senior MP.
"As for terrorism, we have more complaints against Shevardnadze than against Saddam," the minister himself is quoted as saying.
The Kommersant daily likewise draws a parallel between Georgia and Iraq.
"Yesterday Russia announced the possibility of military operations against Georgia," the paper says. "In other words, Moscow decided to apply to Georgia the same approach as the USA to Iraq."
It calls Mr Putin's ultimatum "sensational", adding that "no-one, especially the Georgian leadership, can be left in any doubt as to Moscow's intentions".
True, Mr Putin was careful to say tough action is on the cards only if there is "another attempt to infiltrate Russian territory".
"But this does not alter the heart of the matter. Moscow has warned Tbilisi of the possibility of military action - that is war."
The paper says that the timing was hardly coincidental. On 11 September the world remembered terror attacks of a year ago, while on 12 September, at the UN, President Bush is sending a similar ultimatum to Iraq.
Moscow knows it cannot really do anything to stop this. "There will be a strike against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein will doubtless fall."
So: "Russia is offering the USA a deal: Iraq in return for Georgia."
"The Kremlin won't prevent the White House sorting out Iraq. The White House will turn a blind eye to the Kremlin's plans over Georgia."
Across the border, Georgia's papers are equally frank.
"Russia declares war on us", reads the headline in Dilis Gazeti.
"Yesterday we finally learned that the Russian president suffers from a Napoleonic complex," it says.
"In reality, Pankisi and even Chechnya itself are only excuses," the paper adds.
The headline in Alia is similar: "Putin has declared war on Georgia".
The paper quotes the head of Georgian intelligence, Avtandil Ioseliani, as saying that "nothing unexpected" had happened.
"Russian political circles have been considering this issue for a long time - two months - and we knew it," he says.
"The Russians were impudent enough not to bother with confidentiality. We expected this statement by the end of September."
Rezonansi prints a series of comments by Georgian politicians.
Aleko Shalamberidze from the Union of Georgian Traditionalists says that, ironically, the ultimatum is a "very pleasant political development".
"It allows us to undertake counter-measures. In my view it shows Putin's weak policy. It would be foolish if we miss this chance."
Mr Shevardnadze should make good his threat and "pull Georgia out of the CIS", he adds.
Labour Party leader Shalva Natelashvili says: "It is a fact that the current tensions are escalating. We should be ready for all kinds of unexpected moves. I think that Putin's statement was rather a kind of psychological terror."
Leader of the National Movement Mikheil Saakashvili says in turn that the Russians "are perfectly aware of Shevardnadze's weaknesses".
"The more we retreat, the more the Russians will demand from us."
The leader of the Revival parliamentary group, Jemal Gogitidze, says however Georgia should work with the Russians to rid Pankisi of pro-Chechen militants.
And Niko Lekishvili, chairman of the Taxpayers' Union, recommends active steps by Georgian diplomats.
The headline of the paper's compilation of political reaction perhaps best sums up the mood:
"Above all we should not be afraid," it says.
BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.
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